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5 Things You Didn't Know About Josephine Baker

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Singer and dancer Josephine Baker was probably the closest thing the Jazz Age had to a Britney Spears-type star. The African American diva, who was known as "La Baker" in her adopted France, was a worldwide celebrity and devoted civil rights activist who first rose to fame by dancing in a "skirt" of artificial bananas and very little else. While Baker's activism and military service were commendable, they often took a back seat in the contemporary media to her bizarre personal life. Let's take a look at five things you might not have known about Josephine Baker:

1. SHE WAS A SPY.

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When World War II rocked her adopted France, Baker didn't simply move to a more peaceful country. Instead, she stuck around and did her part for the war effort. Since she had initially publicly supported Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, the Axis powers mistakenly thought she was "one of them," and Baker took full advantage of this misconception.

In fact, her fame made her the perfect spy. When Baker would travel Europe while touring, she obviously had to carry large quantities of sheet music with her. What customs officials never realized, though, was that a lot of this music actually had secret messages written on it in invisible ink. Fawning immigration officials never thought to take too close a look at the diva's luggage, so she could sneak all sorts of things in and out of countries. On some occasions, Baker would smuggle secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory by pinning them to her underwear.

This invaluable intelligence work eventually helped Baker rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and when the war was over she received both the Croix de Guerre (a first for an American woman) and the Medal of the Resistance in 1946.

2. A DUEL WAS FOUGHT IN HER NAME.

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Lots of stars have devoted fans, but how many would be willing to fight a duel for their favorite diva? In 1928, a Hungarian cavalry officer and an Italian count did just that in Budapest. According to a contemporary account from Time, "the ogling and attentions of Hungarian Cavalry Captain Andrew Czlovoydi became too fervently gallant to be stomached by La Baker's manager, Count Pepito di Albertini." Rather than just ask Czlovoydi to knock it off, the Count took the reasonable step of challenging the soldier to a sword-fighting duel.

Fittingly, the two duelers met in a cemetery for their showdown while Baker cheered on the Count from a perch atop a tombstone. According to Time, the two men battled with swords for a solid 10 minutes before the Count took a light blow to the shoulder. At that point, Baker intervened and forced the two men to set aside their differences.

3. IN HER FORTIES AND FIFTIES, SHE ADOPTED A DOZEN CHILDREN.

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Celebrities adopting children from underprivileged backgrounds may be old news at this point, but what Baker did in the 1950s is still shocking and fascinating. In an effort to combat racism and provide an example for the rest of the world to follow, Baker started adopting orphans from all corners of the world.

Baker started by adopting two Japanese children, and kept going until she had assembled a family of 12 children from a variety of countries and ethnicities. Baker dubbed them "the Rainbow Tribe," and lived with the children in her chateau in southwestern France.

As part of her efforts, Baker also turned the chateau into a sort of resort/theme park with a multicultural theme, but it didn't catch on quite as well as Epcot did. By 1968, the operation was hemorrhaging money, and Baker's creditors had to sell the mansion out from under her.

4. SHE AND GRACE KELLY WERE CLOSE FRIENDS.

Although Baker lived and worked in France, she still made frequent touring trips back to the United States. During one 1951 visit to New York, Baker found herself at the Stork Club at the same time as rising actress Grace Kelly. When the racist staff refused to wait on Baker, Kelly, who was dining with a large party of her own, flew into a rage and walked out of the club in support of Baker.

From that moment on, Kelly and Baker were close friends. In fact, when the Rainbow Tribe's chateau was on the rocks financially, Kelly—who by that time had become Princess Grace of Monaco—tried to bail Baker out with her creditors. When Baker ended up losing the house, Kelly didn't abandon her friend. Instead, she arranged for the singer to have a villa in Monaco.

5. BAKER HAD QUITE THE MENAGERIE.

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Baker was just as big on collecting animals as she was about acquiring children. When a club owner gave her a pet cheetah named Chiquita to use as part of her dance show, Baker was delighted. In fact, she liked Chiquita so much that the cat stayed with her long after the act ended; eventually the cheetah traveled the world with Baker, always riding in her car and sleeping in her bed.

That wasn't Baker's only pet, though. She had a goat named Toutoute who lived in her dressing room at her nightclub, and at the same club she had a pet pig named Albert. Albert was no ordinary pig. Not only did he live in the club's kitchen and munch on food scraps, but Baker also liked to gussy him up with fancy perfumes. At one point Albert got so hefty from living this high life that he couldn't make it out of the kitchen's door any longer, so the door's frame had to be broken down.

This post originally ran in 2009.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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